Religion is the big new system in Civilization V: Gods and Kings and we talked quite a bit about it on last week’s podcast. To recap the basics, you now accumulate “faith” as a resource, similar to culture, and can use this resource to create prophets, missionaries and religious buildings. It also lets you spawn a religion which you customize from a list of traits, some of which help you as the religious founder, and some of which apply to any city that has the religion as its majority faith. Religions spread via missionary activity or simple diffusion, much like it did in Civilization IV.
Religion has always been a bit of weird fit in the Civ universe, even though it has undoubtedly been a key driver of culture, exploration, war and diplomacy throughout human civilization. In the first two Civ games, religion was only recognized as a pacifier, an opiate of the masses – temples and cathedrals reduced unhappiness. Then Civ III introduced culture, so you get that aspect of religion. Civ IV introduced religions as real historical actors, and Civ V has only just done so.
Civ V‘s approach to religion is similar to its approach to society building. As you recall, the Civ social policy trees are a series of perks you choose to improve your empire. Open a tree, choose the perks and if you fill the tree, you get a bonus perk. (Fill five trees and build Utopia project, you win.) There are no negative policies, no trade-offs for choosing a policy. Everything you pick will help you, so you decide what kind of help you need and how quickly you can get it.
Similarly, religion is never a matter of “X but not Y” – there are no downsides to picking one faith or Pantheon option over another. Sure, some may not be especially useful in the long run, but when you found a religion you need short term help in any case; buildings and policies can mitigate a sub-optimal early decision. Religion is, for the most part, an early and midgame concern, with a few longer term perspectives related to culture, happiness or defensive posture.
In a way, it’s a subtle commentary on the origins of religion. Those things that give a culture strength and unity (be it reliance on a regular flood, the importance of believing you are a chosen people, or sanction for your wars of conquest) are often those things that become ritualized or sanctified. If your nearby lands are full of wine and incense, a god that encourages you to seek and harvest these resources might make sense. A seaside people will have need of a god to protect their wealth on the oceans – I think there’s a reason the Greeks told so many myths about Poseidon getting pissed off at someone or something. The trait you choose at the beginning may have very little connection to the lives of your people a millennium later. Sometimes Christ’s call to give cloaks to those that need them and Paul’s invocations to welcome the stranger look out of place in the modern post-industrial world. But in Civ V, this first trait can set you on the path to greatness as you milk every last advantage out of your starting point.
But it’s also a way of building a religion that really doesn’t believe in anything. This is quite different from how Social Policies look in Civ V.
OK, let’s be honest. No one really pays a lot of attention to the social policies in Civ V as a nation building exercise. They look at them as filling the Liberty tree or Tradition tree or Commerce tree. But, in fact, each of the policies has a name that you can imagine as being attributable to your empire. Legalism. Warrior Code. Free Speech. If there was a way to highlight these better, you could at least get a picture of how life in your kingdom would look.
But there’s no comparable feeling for what Civ V‘s religions (which you can name, if the idea of a warlike Buddhism gets you down) look like. They have a central driving force, be it desert nomadic stuff or river valleys or fertility, and then you can pick beliefs that shape how it will spread or improve (cathedrals? itinerant preachers? religious colonies?) but not what the faith actually looks like. Where the early Civs treated religion as no more than a happy pill, Civ V treats religion as a means to power, content free.
I won’t get into the Origins of Religion argument and debate whether or not religions are actually mostly institutional power plays, but there is no denying that religions do have content, and that this content can be the means of cultural strength or cultural weakness. One god or many? Vegetarian? Welcoming to outsiders or exclusive club? Does your god want prayers or the hearts of your enemies? Is your ruler a god incarnate? Is there a life after death where the faithful are rewarded? Each of these important content questions can be arguably connected to changing the trajectories of monarchs, nations and empires. Religion is not just a smorgasbord of ways to make the king stronger; as often as not, prophets have stood against kings.
None of this detracts from the real accomplishment the religious system represents for Ed Beach and Firaxis. It’s at once historical, sincere, a tiny bit subversive and always interesting. Because the religious perks are exclusive to a faith, you may not always have your favorite choice when the time comes to pick one. If you get pushed out of discovering a religion altogether, you have to choose which religion helps you more, or whether you can min/max the benefits of multiple faiths in your empire. It’s a beautiful system because it is so simple and clear and immediately appealing.
(Next week I’ll write about the Crusader Kings 2 expansion Sword of Islam, because that also adds some neat religious themes to a game that needed more contrast.)